2015-05-13

“Common Sense” Ways to tell (Historical) Fact from Fiction

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by Neil Godfrey

quote_begin In the real world we know the importance of confirming the truth of important information. Does it come from a source we have good reasons to trust? Can we find independent verification? quote_end

Someone recently asked me if I could recommend readings that address the point I have made about how we (or historians) decide some person or event is a historical “facts” or a historical “maybes” or an outright fabrication. If there exists an abundance of literature explaining this with any sort of rigour it has eluded me. I’ll try to explain here how I came to my own understanding of this question. I’ll also make clear that there is nothing mysterious or technical about it but it’s nothing more than an application of how we approach any question seriously.

I have posted HISTORICAL METHOD and the Question of Christian Origins as a cogent explanation of how I believe historians do generally distinguish fact from fantasy whether they make their approach explicit or (more usually) undertake it as a matter of almost subconscious routine. On a reader’s recommendation this link is kept in the right margin of this blog for easy reference. My first attempt to address this question was a much lengthier Historical Facts and the very UNfactual Jesus: contrasting nonbiblical history with ‘historical Jesus’ studies posted in 2010.

kempWhen I first stopped to seriously ask myself this question quite some years ago I was frustrated to find so little in scholarly books, usually nothing, to help answer this specific question: How do we know a figure of the past existed if there are no surviving trustworthy contemporary sources to tell us so?

What I found helpful as I continued to think about this question was book by D. Alasdair Kemp, The Nature of Knowledge, that I had studied years earlier in a post-grad librarianship course. That is an excellent introduction to help one think clearly about the differences between scientific, social and personal knowledge and differences between data, information, knowledge, and so forth.

Forget ancient history for a moment. Kemp’s explanations pulled me up to rethink how we know for certain about anything in this world.

In the real world we know the importance of confirming the truth of important information. That confirmation can come from establishing the source of the news. Is it from a person or institution we have good reasons to trust? Or it can we find some independent means of verification?

Trust, but not blind trust read more »


2015-05-09

More on that very strange birth of Jesus in the Ascension of Isaiah

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by Neil Godfrey

c. 1437-1446

c. 1437-1446 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Continuing the series currently archived here . . . .

There are more interesting questions than the one I addressed in the previous post about that bizarre “birth” of Jesus in the Ascension of Isaiah (AoI). What is the point of creating such an odd explanation for how the Son of God made his entrance to the world?

Orthodox Christian theology has Jesus save the world by means of the incarnation. The AoI, however, teaches that this is not how Jesus saved and has no room for Jesus literally becoming a man. God’s will was for Jesus to rescue humanity by having him hide his glory behind a mere human appearance and so by means of this deception to defeat t

he angelic powers. (Norelli 1993, p. 53)

Recall how the Son of the Beloved sloughs off a layer of his glory as he passes through each of the seven heavens on his descent so that he appears no different from the inhabitants of each realm.

Notice, too, how the description of Jesus’ birth turns into a vision for Joseph and Mary:

It came to pass that when they were alone that Mary straight-way looked with her eyes and saw a small babe, and she was astonished.

And after she had been astonished, her womb was found as formerly before she had conceived.

And when her husband Joseph said unto her: “What has astonished thee?” his eyes were opened and he saw the infant and praised God, because into his portion God had come.

And a voice came to them: “Tell this vision to no one.”

So it is through revelation that Joseph and Mary understand and know that Jesus is not a man like other humans. (Norelli 1993, p. 53)

In the previous post we saw the possible link between Isaiah 53:2 and the miraculous appearance of the child. Enrico Norelli explores further the AoI’s sources for this scene and the message it was meant to convey.

We saw in another earlier post Norelli’s reasons for rejecting the view that the AoI was adapting the nativity scene in the Gospel of Matthew. He argues that the AoI was most likely written about the same time as that canonical gospel (or before it).

Comparing with the Acts of Peter

The AoI continues (Charles’ translation): read more »


2015-05-07

A Very Strange “Birth” of Jesus (Ascension of Isaiah / Norelli)

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by Neil Godfrey

This continues on from the earlier post, Ascension of Isaiah: Continuing Norelli’s Argument, in which I covered Norelli’s take on the opening verses of the very odd nativity scene in the Ascension of Isaiah. . . .

In the Ascension of Isaiah (AoI) there is a very strange tale of how Jesus came into the world. Is it a bizarre “heretical” rewriting of the nativity scenes in the canonical gospels or is it a very early (pre-gospel) groping for an explanation of how a divinity could appear on earth as a man in supposed fulfillment of Jewish scriptures? 

AoI 11:6-11 (R.H. Charles’ translation)

And [Joseph] did not live with [Mary] for two months.

And after two months of days while Joseph was in his house, and Mary his wife, but both alone.

It came to pass that when they were alone that Mary straight-way looked with her eyes and saw a small babe, and she was astonished.

And after she had been astonished, her womb was found as formerly before she had conceived.

And when her husband Joseph said unto her: “What has astonished thee?” his eyes were opened and he saw the infant and praised God, because into his portion God had come.

And a voice came to them: “Tell this vision to no one.”

Jesus suddenly appears before them not, apparently, after a normal birth but coincidentally with the rise and fall of Mary’s belly. The child is “real” enough but the parents are told to “tell this vision to no one”. read more »


2015-05-05

From a single source? Disguising hermeneutics as history?

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by Neil Godfrey

I’ve been re-reading Propp’s work on the structure of folk tales (Morphology of the Folktale) and this passage struck me this time:

[I]f all fairy tales are so similar in form, does this not mean that they all originate from a single source? The morphologist does not have the right to answer this question. At this point he hands over his conclusions to a historian or should himself become a historian. Our answer, although in the form of a supposition, is that this appears to be so. However, the question of sources should not be posed merely in a narrowly geographic sense. “A single source” does not positively signify, as some assume, that all tales came, for example, from India, and that they spread from there throughout the entire world, assuming various forms in the process of their migration.

Propp, V. (2010-06-03). Morphology of the Folk Tale (Kindle Locations 2049-2053). University of Texas Press. Kindle Edition.

Propp then goes on to raise our awareness of other possible common sources:

The single source may also be a psychological one.

Family life is one such possible single source. Daily living another.

This passage jumped out at me probably because not long before I was re-reading parts of Childs’ book The Myth of the Historical Jesus, in particular his criticism of the assumptions of scholars who study the historical Jesus. He uses Crossan as a typical example:

[I]n a 1998 article, Crossan seems intent on finding and locating a kind of “cause,” or at least the source, for multiform manifest versions of Jesus’ sayings in the original voice of Jesus. He proposes the “criterion of adequacy” to replace the criterion of dissimilarity as the first principle in historical Jesus research. He defines it thus: “that is original which best explains the multiplicity engendered in the tradition. What original datum from the historical Jesus must we envisage to explain adequately the full spectrum of primitive Christian response. (p. 50)

Childs later suggests:

Crossan . . . seems to verge on what is a kind of concretistic historical fallacy in assuming that “the full spectrum of primitive Christian response” can only have its origin in, and therefore must be traced to, the original words and deeds of Jesus. read more »


2015-05-04

Jesus Mythicism: An Introduction by Minas Papageorgiou

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by Neil Godfrey

jesus-mythicismMinas Papageorgiou, freelance journalist,  managing director of a Greek publishing group and a founding member of the Hellenic Society of Metaphysics (metafysiko.gr), has made his Greek language survey of a wide range of contemporary Jesus mythicist views available in English as an ebook on Amazon. And it’s not exorbitantly priced, either.

Jesus Mythicism: An Introduction was originally written for readers in the religiously conservative nation of Greece where the very existence of the mythicist debate has scarcely registered, both historically and today. The book is an attempt to introduce Greeks to a wide range of Jesus mythicist ideas currently being published and discussed in the English speaking world and now that it is available in English it is also an interesting introduction for English speakers.  

Before the main interviews Papageorgiou covers some of the more general or foundational arguments of mythicists such as those addressing the earliest references to Christianity in the non-Christian sources. He segues from this discussion into details of René Salm‘s arguments about the archaeological evidence for the inhabitation of Nazareth in the early first century, Raglan’s list of “hero archetypes” found among mythological figures, and material such as supposed ancient correspondence about Jesus that has been long understood to be forgeries. Some of this was new to me.

The first interview is with Gerd Lüdemann, the scholar who suffered professionally for publishing a work calling into question the authenticity of many of the sayings of Jesus. Lüdermann also expresses his views on the Christ Myth hypothesis, too. (Hint: I’ve updated the Who’s Who list of mythicists and mythicist agnostics/sympathizers.)

While I have been interested in a few Jesus myth arguments (in particular Brodie’s, Carrier’s, Doherty’s) and have known something of a tiny handful of others (e.g. Atwill’s, Murdock’s), there are others I knew about only vaguely or not at all.

Minas Papageorgiou from the start seeks to reassure readers that mythicism is not opposed to spirituality or faith but that it even has the potential to “enhance the essential messages of faith” by separating myth from historical truth. He points out that the first “Jesus mythicists” appeared with the emergence of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century but that this intellectual movement largely bypassed Greece. Only two groups, he writes, have anything to fear from mythicism: members of organized clergy and some of the academic guild who have made their reputations and livings through supporting the traditional Christian narrative.

This publication is not a critical evaluation of the various mythicist ideas but leaves the reader to judge and follow up what he or she personally prefers. The result is that some readers with a more serious scholarly interest may be dismayed to see the views of Carrier and Atwill given much the same billing. Carrier has criticized Atwill’s approach as decidedly unscholarly and fallacious and the two are scarcely comparable in terms of intellectual rigour. However, it is good to see Papageorgiou has given his interview with Richard Carrier priority.

In his introduction to Richard Carrier he writes: read more »


2015-05-02

More Thoughts on Minimal Historicity: When Bigger Isn’t Better

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by Tim Widowfield

U-2 over California

U-2 over California

Many years ago, I had what I still consider the best job in the world. A second lieutenant in my twenties, I found myself in charge of operational maintenance on the swing shift for the entire “black side” of the flightline at Beale Air Force Base. Back then, the tankers were on the north side of the flightline, while the U-2s (including their TR-1 cousins) and SR-71s sat on the south side.

Of course, the real work depended on experienced NCOs. As the old joke goes, the job of an OIC (Officer in Charge) is to listen to the NCOIC, then nod and say, “Oh, I See.” But I did serve at least one crucial function. Only an officer could sign off on a “Red X” and clear a plane to fly.

One night we were driving around in the little blue pickup truck assigned to the maintenance officer on duty, when we stopped at one of the U-2 shelters. The senior NCO and I were checking on the status of some repair; I forget exactly what it was now. At any rate, we got to talking and one the guys asked the crew chief about a car he’d been looking at. The young buck sergeant told us that he did almost buy one vehicle. It looked nice, he said, and the payments seemed reasonable. But then he noticed something fishy.

“When I added up all the payments,” he said, “it was more than the price of the car!”

I felt compelled to explain. “If . . . I mean . . . Suppose . . . Hmm.” And then I realized there wasn’t enough time to explain how interest works, and it wasn’t clear it would do much good anyway. I gave a wide-eyed look at the senior NCO, offered some excuse about needing to get over to the SR-71s, and we quickly departed.

I had a similar feeling of helplessness reading Dr. Matthew Baldwin’sA Short Note on Carrier’s ‘Minimal Historicism.’” One’s first inclination is to want to help someone who’s thrashing about wildly, but where to start? Baldwin writes in his post, “This game is more than somewhat suspect: it is rigged from the start.” And he followed up with the same sentiments in his comment on Neil’s recent post, where he wrote: read more »


2015-04-28

Problems accepting Carrier’s argument

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by Neil Godfrey

Happily for at least a couple of scholars* Matthew Baldwin has posted on his blog eschata an argument that Richard Carrier’s case against the historicity of Jesus is flawed at its very foundations. His post is A Short Note on Carrier’s “Minimal Historicism”. I would be happily surprised, however, if I ever see a scholar critically engaging with the logic and facts of Matthew Baldwin’s argument. (I’m sure at least those who peer-reviewed Carrier’s work before it was published would take exception to claims that they approved what Baldwin describes as a “pseudo-logical, pseudo-mathematical . . . form of question-begging”, “tedious, overly self-referential” treatise condemning every prior Jesus historian as a “dupe, a stooge or tool (fool?)”.)

Matthew Baldwin does struggle with Carrier’s argument and his post demonstrates just how hard it is for anyone of us so entrenched in assumptions of the historicity of Jesus to grasp fundamental ideas and questions that potentially undermine the beliefs of millennia.

As I understand Baldwin’s criticism (and I am certainly open to correction) he finds two key difficulties with Carrier’s case:

1. Carrier reasons that at the very minimum a historical Jesus must be understood as a historical person with followers who continued a movement after his death; whose followers claimed had been executed by Jewish or Roman authorities and whose followers soon began to worship him in some sense as a divinity.

2. Carrier does not simply address the arguments for and against the historicity of this person but sets up in opposition an argument that Jesus’ origin was entirely mythical.

What Baldwin believes Carrier should have addressed is Jesus who is not quite so “minimalist”. Baldwin appears to fear that what Carrier has done is to reject the most fundamental historical elements of Jesus before he even starts and is therefore stacking the case against historicity in his favour.

I think Baldwin fears that Carrier is removing most of the defences supporting the historicity of Jesus before he starts, thus making his task too easy for himself. Baldwin wants to see the historical Jesus that needs to be overturned as having not only three attributes but be much more recognizably the same Jesus most scholars accept.  read more »


2015-04-27

Two Quotations from Hal Childs

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by Neil Godfrey

From Hal Childs’ The Myth of History and the Evolution of Consciousness I addressed in my previous post:

Everything we know about Jesus is at least second- and third-hand. There is no way to confirm that material from multiple, independent witnesses actually goes back to Jesus. The scholar can only assume or hope it does — it is a question of probability but not necessity. But how reliable is the probability? There are no reliable epistemological procedures by which to determine this either. It remains a matter of personal preference. (p. 35)

And the following is from page 501 of “Jesus, Historians, and the Psychology of Historiography: A Response to My Respondents” by Hal Childs, Pastoral Psychology, Vol. 51, No. 6, July 2003. There was a special issue of Pastoral Psychology devoted to Hal Childs’ book.

Yet we only need to look at Saint Paul to realize the historic Jesus is not required by, nor necessary for, Christianity. Paul was transformed by his encounter with a Christ, and his own work with his encounter, in turn, transformed a Christ image that also became a cultural phenomenon. But Paul never knew the historic Jesus and it didn’t seem to matter in the least. Whenever Paul needed authorization for his views and experience he went directly to divine revelation.  read more »


Recovering from a postmodernist & Jungian Jesus headache

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by Neil Godfrey

6ba73150824e779593148505241434f414f4141Hi there. If I don’t post again soon I’ll feel like I’ll have to introduce myself again. I’ve been taking time off mainly just to read, and especially to read a work that for me at least has been quite challenging. It’s full of coined concepts alongside esoteric ones: ontic as distinct from ontological; existentiell versus existentialia; historic versus historical; Dasein, Lichtung; “world” used not only as a noun but even as a verb; Jungian philosophy and psychology, Heidegger; “projection” but with a meaning fundamentally opposite from Freud’s meaning . . . I was labouring with a headache much of the time. But through it all I’ve come to at least work out (sort of) what Hal Childs is writing about in The Myth of the Historical Jesus and the Evolution of Consciousness.

Childs is comparing John Dominic Crossan’s approach to understanding the historical Jesus with that of Carl Jung. Crossan, recall, is well known for scholarly tomes such as The Historical Jesus and many others, some of which I’ve discussed on this blog. Childs argues that scholarly efforts to understand the historical Jesus are essentially efforts to create new myths about the Christ figure that is so much a part of Western cultural heritage.

Hal Childs is certainly not arguing for a Christ Myth theory (or, as Raphael Lataster rightly points out, the term should be Jesus Myth theory since obviously the “Christ” is mythical to begin with). He is attempting to raise the readers’ awareness of the extent to which all historical “reconstructions” and narratives are themselves mythical. From one perspective I can understand his point well enough, but I do have fundamental disagreements with some of his views of history (and the postmodernist view generally) that I cannot address here.

But for now I would like to mention one point in particular that is central to his thesis. Childs sympathizes with Crossan’s expressions of “embarrassment” over the way scholarship has produced such a wild array of historical Jesus figures. Crossan blamed the lack of a sound historical methodology for this “embarrassing” state of affairs; Childs, however, blames something else. Or rather, he doesn’t so much as lay “blame” as he does offer thanks:

[M]ultiple historical-Jesus-images are an unavoidable necessity in the light of the narrative and mythic essence of history — as such, it is not to be struggled against but embraced. (p. 259)

As far as I can understand from reading Childs’ work he falls into the same confusion about the nature of historical evidence that most biblical scholars also do. He writes with the assumption that historical Jesus studies are no different, at their base line, than any other study of an ancient historical question. But there is a significant difference and I have addressed it many times here. The difference revolves around something that is so fundamental that I think many historians rarely stop to think about it consciously. In brief, the core difference is as follows:  read more »


2015-04-20

The Memory Mavens, Part 6: How Did Paul Remember Jesus?

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by Tim Widowfield

We have covered the subject of the apostle Paul’s silence on Jesus’ life many times on Vridar. But for quite a while now, I’ve been thinking we keep asking the same, misdirected questions. NT scholars have kept us focused on the narrow confines of the debate they want to have. But there are other questions that we need to ask.

Last Judgment panel Diest 001

Last Judgment panel Diest 001 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pretty apocalyptic prophets, all in a row

For example, Bart Ehrman, defending his claim that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, has habitually argued that we can draw a sort of “line of succession” from John the Baptist, through Jesus, to Paul. In Did Jesus Exist? he explains it all in an apocalyptic nutshell:

At the beginning of Jesus’s ministry he associated with an apocalyptic prophet, John; in the aftermath of his ministry there sprang up apocalyptic communities. What connects this beginning and this end? Or put otherwise, what is the link between John the Baptist and Paul? It is the historical Jesus. Jesus’s public ministry occurs between the beginning and the end. Now if the beginning is apocalyptic and the end is apocalyptic, what about the middle? It almost certainly had to be apocalyptic as well. To explain this beginning and this end, we have to think that Jesus himself was an apocalypticist. (Ehrman, 2012, p. 304, emphasis mine)

Dr. Ehrman sees the evidence at the ends as “keys to the middle.” For him, it’s a decisive argument.

The only plausible explanation for the connection between an apocalyptic beginning and an apocalyptic end is an apocalyptic middle. Jesus, during his public ministry, must have proclaimed an apocalyptic message.

I think this is a powerful argument for Jesus being an apocalypticist. It is especially persuasive in combination with the fact, which we have already seen, that apocalyptic teachings of Jesus are found throughout our earliest sources, multiply attested by independent witnesses. (Ehrman, 2012, p. 304, emphasis mine)

You’ve probably heard Ehrman make this argument elsewhere. He’s nothing if not a conscientious recycler. Here, he follows up by summarizing Jesus’ supposed apocalyptic proclamation. Jesus heralds the coming kingdom of God; he refers to himself as the Son of Man; he warns of the imminent day of judgment. And how should people prepare for the wrath that is to come?

We saw in Jesus’s earliest recorded words that his followers were to “repent” in light of the coming kingdom. This meant that, in particular, they were to change their ways and begin doing what God wanted them to do. As a good Jewish teacher, Jesus was completely unambiguous about how one knows what God wants people to do. It is spelled out in the Torah. (Ehrman, 2012, p. 309)

Unasked questions

However, Ehrman’s argument works only if we continue to read the texts with appropriate tunnel vision and maintain discipline by not asking uncomfortable questions. Ehrman wants us to ask, “Was Paul an apocalypticist?” To which we must answer, “Yes,” and be done with it.

But I have more questions. read more »


2015-04-18

The Oldest Oral Traditions in the World

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by Neil Godfrey

280px-Palm_Valley_NT

Palm Valley — Wikipedia

How old can an oral tradition be? How long can a social memory exist?

Surely much depends on the stability of the social organizations that sustain them. But can we imagine a story surviving through generations over 7,000 or even 30,000 years?

Scientists studying certain species of palm trees curiously surviving in Central Australia may have coincidentally confirmed Aboriginal stories that must date back at least 7000 years.

It had until recently been thought that palm trees in Central Australia were survivors from Gondwanaland, from before the time Australia split off from what is now Antarctica, South America and Africa, and a time when Australia was covered in rainforest.

Months of genetic testing by University of Tasmania ecologist David Bowman and a Japanese team eventually confirmed that trees that had long been thought to date from Gondwana ancestors are not nearly so old at all. They in fact date from the time humans inhabited the continent.

The results led him to conclude the seeds were carried to the Central Desert by humans up to 30,000 years ago.

Professor Bowman read an Aboriginal legend recorded in 1894 by pioneering German anthropologist and missionary Carl Strehlow, which was only recently translated, describing the “gods from the north” bringing the seeds to Palm Valley.

Professor Bowman said he was amazed.

“We’re talking about a verbal tradition which had been transmitted through generations possibly for over 7,000, possibly 30,000 years,” he said. read more »


2015-04-17

How To Date Early Christian Texts

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by Neil Godfrey

A new post has appeared on the Weststar Institute’s blog, 8 tips for dating early Christian texts. It covers considerable detail for both relative and absolute dating.

My earlier post, Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels, was a summary of Niels Peter Lemche’s explanation of valid methods to arrive at an absolute date range for the gospels. The Westar Institute post by Cassandra Farrin gives much more detail — most of it applicable to relative dating.

Her headings — but you must read her post to grasp the full meaning of each:

1. Does the writer refer to any historical figures and events?

2. What other texts does the writer know and refer to?

3. What is the earliest known reference to this text in other sources?

4. Does the text contain special terms or words that changed in meaning from one era to another?

5. Does the text copy the mistakes or variations of other, earlier texts?

6. Is the text concerned with questions or themes that were also popular in other texts of a certain historical period?

7. What genre is this text? Is it a letter, a gospel, an apocalypse? In what sorts of wider contexts was this style of writing useful and popular?

8. Is there any archaeological, socio-cultural, or paleographic research to back up your best guess?

The post links to another set of interesting ones, including one titled 5 Quick and Dirty Rules for Interpreting Paulread more »


Unrecognized Bias in New Testament Scholarship over Christian Origins

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by Neil Godfrey

From time to time someone – lay person or New Testament scholar – publicly insists that there is no more bias among the professional scholars of the Bible than there is among any other academic guild. The question arose recently on the Bible Criticism and History forum and I found myself scrambling quotations from members of the guild themselves to point out what surely is obvious to most outsiders. There are individuals who recognize in greater or lesser degrees just how bound in hidden bias on the question of the historical Jesus are the majority of their peers.

Of course most scholars will openly confess to acknowledging bias to some extent but in practice few appear to truly grasp the extent to which the historical Jesus question is grounded in interests that are not fully scholarly.

Here is the list that came most readily to hand.

Hal Childs, “Myth of the Historical Jesus

If interest in Jesus, whether historical or theological, has a strong, if not predominant, emotional dimension, this is usually not acknowledged, nor named as such. Emotion has a bad name in scholarship, and both methods and literary style have been designed to apparently exclude it from scholarly pursuits and results. If scholarship can be said to have repressed emotion, then, as Freud said, it returns in other forms, perhaps as ideology or dogmatism. It is always present as an invisible hand guiding interest, commitment, choice, judgement, and the framing of meaning. (p. 15)

Scot McKnight, “Jesus and His Death

Since I have placed Carr and Elton in the same category of modernist historiographer, I must add that many if not most historical Jesus scholars tend to make a presentation of Jesus that fits with what they think the future of Christianity holds, as E.H. Carr so clearly argued. While each may make the claim that they are simply after the facts and simply trying to figure out what Jesus was really like—and while most don’t quite say this, most do think this is what they are doing— nearly every one of them presents what they would like the church, or others with faith, to think about Jesus. Clear examples of this can be found in the studies of Marcus Borg, N.T. Wright, E.P. Sanders, and B.D. Chilton—in fact, we would not be far short of the mark if we claimed that this pertains to each scholar—always and forever. And each claims that his or her presentation of Jesus is rooted in the evidence, and only in the evidence. (p. 36)

From James Crossley: To date the study has been approached too narrowly, “being dominated by Christians”.

As it stands presently, NT scholarship will always get largely Christian results, be they the nineteenth-century liberal lives of Jesus, the Bultmannian dominated neo-Lutheranism, or the results of smaller subgroups, such as the social reformer/critic Cynic Jesus associated with the Jesus Seminar: all different but all recognizably Christian. (p. 23)

Crossley quoting Maurice Casey:

But when 90 percent of the applicants [to New Testament studies] are Protestant Christians, a vast majority of Christian academics is a natural result. Moreover, the figure of Jesus is of central importance in colleges and universities which are overtly Protestant or Catholic, and which produce a mass of books and articles of sufficient technical proficiency to be taken seriously. The overall result of such bias is to make the description of New Testament Studies as an academic field a dubious one. (p. 23) read more »


2015-04-08

Evangelical Scholars and the Limits of Historical Criticism

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by Neil Godfrey

Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 5.03.44 pmTwo evangelical scholars declare as an article of faith that historical criticism has a place in their study of the Bible:

The scholars in this volume believe that we should approach Scripture as a collection of historical texts. . . . As evangelicals, we believe that there needs to be space for an approach to Scripture that is historical critical. 

That credal statement comes from Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism by Christopher M. Hayes and Christopher B. Ansberry.

I really don’t quite know how to respond to a claim that historical critical analysis should be enshrined as a statement of belief. Where does one start?

The contradiction would be mitigated a little if the authors meant that the Bible’s books should themselves be approached as historical artefacts that required historical examination and explanation. How do the letters and gospels in the New Testament , for example, compare with other literature of the day? When do they first appear to be independently acknowledged in the historical record How can we best account for their contents and any “traditions” surrounding them?

But reading further it is very clear that what Hays and Ansberry really mean is that the stories found in those books are “believed” to be in some literal sense historically true:

This endeavour ought well to be historical, because we believe that God has chosen to reveal himself in history, to Abraham, to Israel, and ultimately through Jesus.

This leaves no room to question the fundamental core of the Bible’s stories of Abraham, Israel or Jesus. Yet a number of scholars without such faith constraints have indeed used historical critical tools to reject completely any truth underlying the stories of the patriarchs and to reshape the Biblical story of Israel beyond all recognition to anyone brought up on Bible stories.

It would appear then that historical criticism is only permissible if it serves to support the faith:

And this endeavour should be critical because, in the footsteps of the great Reformers, we do not want to confuse our human traditions with God’s own revelation. . . . 

In fact, refusing to engage in historical criticism at all can only have the effect of preparing the next generation for apostasy — or at least preparing them to leave evangelicalism. 

I’m not exactly sure what defines an “evangelical” but I do suspect that this is the approach of a good many biblical scholars. The difference with many is that they have a more liberal faith that does not require Jesus to have been born of a virgin, have performed miracles and have been literally (and physically) resurrected.

Theology always trumps historical criticism:  read more »